1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Correggio
The few certain early works of Correggio show a rapid progression towards the attainment of his own original style. Though he never achieved any large measure of reputation during his brief lifetime, and was perhaps totally unknown beyond his own district of country, he found a sufficiency of employers, and this from a very youthful age. One of his early pictures, painted in 1514 when he was nineteen or twenty years old, is a large altar-piece commissioned for the Franciscan convent at Carpi, representing the Virgin enthroned, with Saints; it indicates a predilection for the style of Leonardo da Vinci, and has certainly even greater freedom than similarly early works of Raphael. This picture is now in the Dresden gallery. Another painting of Correggio’s youth is the “Arrest of Christ.” A third is an Ancona (or triple altar-piece—the “Repose in Egypt, with Sts Bartholomew and John”) in the church of the Conventuali at Correggio, showing the transition from the painter’s first to his second style. Between 1514 and 1520 Correggio worked much, both in oil and in fresco, for churches and convents. In 1521 he began his famous fresco of the “Ascension of Christ,” on the cupola of the Benedictine church of San Giovanni in Parma; here the Redeemer is surrounded by the twelve apostles and the four doctors of the church, supported by a host of wingless cherub boys amid the clouds. This he finished in 1524, and soon afterwards undertook his still vaster work on another cupola, that of the cathedral of the same city, presenting the “Assumption of the Virgin,” amid an unnumbered host of saints and angels rapt in celestial joy. It occupied him up to 1530. The astounding boldness of scheme in these works, especially as regards their incessant and audacious foreshortenings—the whole mass of figures being portrayed as in the clouds, and as seen from below—becomes all the more startling when we recall to mind the three facts—that Correggio had apparently never seen any of the masterpieces of Raphael or his other great predecessors and contemporaries, in Rome, Florence, or other chief centres of art; that he was the first artist who ever undertook the painting of a large cupola; and that he not only went at once to the extreme of what can be adventured in foreshortening, but even forestalled in this attempt the mightiest geniuses of an elder generation—the “Last Judgment” of Michelangelo, for instance, not having been begun earlier than 1533 (although the ceiling of the Sixtine chapel, in which foreshortening plays a comparatively small part, dates from 1508 to 1512). The cupola of the cathedral has neither skylight nor windows, but only light reflected from below; the frescoes, some portions of which were ultimately supplied by Giorgio Gandini, are now dusky with the smoke of tapers, and parts of them, in the cathedral and in the church of St John, have during many past years been peeling off. The violent foreshortenings were not, in the painter’s own time, the object of unmixed admiration; some satirist termed the groups a “guazzetto di rane,” or “hash of frogs.” This was not exactly the opinion of Titian, who is reported to have said, on seeing the pictures, and finding them lightly esteemed by local dignitaries, “Reverse the cupola, and fill it with gold, and even that will not be its money’s worth.” Annibale Caracci and the Eclectics generally evinced their zealous admiration quite as ardently. Parma is the only city which contains frescoes by Correggio. For the paintings of the cupola of San Giovanni he received the moderate sum of 472 sequins; for those of the cathedral, much less proportionately, 350. On these amounts he had to subsist, himself and his family, and to provide the colours, for about ten years, having little time for further work meanwhile. Parma was in an exceedingly unsettled and turbulent condition during some of the years covered by Correggio’s labours there, veering between the governmental ascendancy of the French and of the Pope, with wars and rumours of wars, alarms, tumults and pestilence.
Other leading works by Correggio are the following:—The frescoes in the Camera di San Paolo (the abbess’s saloon) in the monastery of S. Lodovico at Parma, painted towards 1519 in fresco,—“Diana returning from the Chase,” with auxiliary groups of lovely and vivacious boys of more than life size, in sixteen oval compartments. In the National Gallery, London, the “Ecce Homo,” painted probably towards 1520 (authenticity not unquestioned); and “Cupid, Mercury and Venus,” the latter more especially a fine example. The oil-painting of the Nativity named “Night” (“La Notte”), for which 40 ducats and 208 livres of old Reggio coin were paid, the nocturnal scene partially lit up by the splendour proceeding from the divine Infant. This work was undertaken at Reggio in 1522 for Alberto Pratoneris, and is now in the Dresden gallery. The oil-painting of St Jerome, termed also “Day” (“Il Giorno”), as contrasting with the above-named “Night.” Jerome is here with the Madonna and Child, the Magdalene, and two Angels, of whom one points out to the Infant a passage in the book held by the Saint. This was painted for Briseida Bergonzi from 1527 onwards, and was remunerated by 400 gold imperials, some cartloads of faggots and measures of wheat, and a fat pig. It is now in the gallery at Parma. The “Magdalene lying at the entrance of her Cavern”: this small picture (only 18 in. wide) was bought by Augustus III. of Saxony for 6000 louis d’or, and is in Dresden. In the same gallery, the two works designated “St George” (painted towards 1532) and “St Sebastian.” In the Parma gallery, the Madonna named “della Scala,” a fresco which was originally in a recess of the Porta Romana, Parma; also the Madonna “della Scodella” (of the bowl, which is held by the Virgin—the subject being the Repose in Egypt): it was executed for the church of San Sepolcro. Both these works date towards 1526. In the church of the Annunciation, “Parma,” a fresco of the Annunciation, now all but perished. Five celebrated pictures painted or begun in 1532,—“Venus,” “Leda,” “Danaë,” “Vice,” and “Virtue”: the “Leda,” with figures of charming girls bathing, is now in the Berlin gallery, and is a singularly delightful specimen of the master. In Vienna, “Jupiter and Io.” In the Louvre, “Jupiter and Antiope,” and the “Mystic Marriage of St Catharine.” In the Naples Museum, the “Madonna Reposing,” commonly named “La Zingarella,” or the “Madonna del Coniglio” (Gipsy-girl, or Madonna of the Rabbit). On some of his pictures Correggio signed “Lieto,” as a synonym of “Allegri.” About forty works can be confidently assigned to him, apart from a multitude of others probably or manifestly spurious.
The famous story that this great but isolated artist was once, after long expectancy, gratified by seeing a picture of Raphael’s, and closed an intense scrutiny of it by exclaiming “Anch’ io son pittore” (I too am a painter), cannot be traced to any certain source. It has nevertheless a great internal air of probability; and the most enthusiastic devotee of the Umbrian will admit that in technical bravura, in enterprizing, gifted, and consummated execution, not Raphael himself could have assumed to lord it over Correggio.
In 1520 Correggio married Girolama Merlino, a young lady of Mantua, who brought him a good dowry. She was but sixteen years of age, very lovely, and is said by tradition to have been the model of his Zingarella. They lived in great harmony together, and had a family of four children. She died in 1529. Correggio himself expired at his native place on the 5th of March 1534. His illness was a short one, and has by some authors been termed pleurisy. Others, following Vasari, allege that it was brought on by his having had to carry home a sum of money, 50 scudi, which had been paid to him for one of his pictures, and paid in copper coin to humiliate and annoy him; he carried the money himself, to save expense, from Parma to Correggio on a hot day, and his fatigue and exhaustion led to the mortal illness. In this curious tale there is no symptom of authenticity, unless its very singularity, and the unlikelihood of its being invented without any foundation at all, may be allowed to count for something. He is said to have died with Christian piety; and his eulogists (speaking apparently from intuition rather than record) affirm that he was a good citizen, an affectionate son and father, fond and observant of children, a sincere and obliging friend, pacific, beneficent, grateful, unassuming, without meanness, free from envy and tolerant of criticism. He was buried with some pomp in the Arrivabene chapel, in the cloister of the Franciscan church at Correggio.
Regarding the art of Correggio from an intellectual or emotional point of view, his supreme gift may be defined as suavity,—a vivid, spontaneous, lambent play of the affections, a heartfelt inner grace which fashions the forms and features, and beams like soft and glancing sunshine in the expressions. We see lovely or lovable souls clothed in bodies or corresponding loveliness, which are not only physically charming, but are so informed with the spirit within as to become one with that in movement and gesture. In these qualities of graceful naturalness, not heightened into the sacred or severe, and of joyous animation, in momentary smiles and casual living turns of head or limb, Correggio undoubtedly carried the art some steps beyond anything it had previously attained, and he remains to this day the unsurpassed or unequalled model of pre-eminence. From a technical point of view, his supreme gift—even exceeding his prodigious faculty in foreshortening and the like—is chiaroscuro, the power of modifying every tone, from bright light to depth of darkness, with the sweetest and most subtle gradations, all being combined into harmonious unity. In this again he far distanced all predecessors, and defied subsequent competition. His colour also is luminous and precious, perfectly understood and blended; it does not rival the superb richness or deep intense glow of the Venetians, but on its own showing is a perfect achievement, in exact keeping with his powers in chiaroscuro and in vital expression. When we come, however, to estimate painters according to their dramatic faculty, their power of telling a story or impressing a majestic truth, their range and strength of mind, we find the merits of Correggio very feeble in comparison with those of the highest masters, and even of many who without, being altogether great have excelled in these particular qualities. Correggio never means much, and often, in subjects where fulness of significance is demanded, he means provokingly little. He expressed his own miraculous facility by saying that he always had his thoughts at the end of his pencil; in truth, they were often thoughts rather of the pencil and its controlling hand than of the teeming brain. He has the faults of his excellences—sweetness lapsing into mawkishness and affectation, empty in elevated themes and lasciviously voluptuous in those of a sensuous type, rapid and forceful action lapsing into posturing and self-display, fineness and sinuosity of contour lapsing into exaggeration and mannerism, daring design lapsing into incorrectness. No great master is more dangerous than Correggio to his enthusiasts; round him the misdeeds of conventionalists and the follies of connoisseurs cluster with peculiar virulence, and almost tend to blind to his real and astonishing excellences those practitioners or lovers of painting who, while they can acknowledge the value of technique, are still more devoted to greatness of soul, and grave or elevated invention, as expressed in the form of art.
Correggio was the head of the school of painting of Parma, which forms one main division of the Lombardic school. He had more imitators than pupils. Of the latter one can name with certainty only his son Pomponio, who was born in 1521 and died at an advanced age; Francesco Capelli; Giovanni Giarola; Antonio Bernieri (who, being also a native of the town of Correggio, has sometimes been confounded with Allegri); and Bernardo Gatti, who ranks as the best of all. The Parmigiani (Mazzuoli) were his most highly distinguished imitators.